The Senate Monday commenced an investigation into the allegation of purchase of N298 million Sports Utility Vehicle (SUV) with fake customs papers levelled against Senate President, Abubakar Bukola Saraki.
The high-profile probe is coming as Saraki said that the upper chamber was being tackled by unnamed persons for resolving to order the reversal of the controversial policy of retrospective duty payment on vehicles introduced by the Nigerian Customs Service (NCS).
The Senate President spoke when he appeared before the Senate Committee on Ethics, Privileges and Public Petitions, probing the alleged importation of N298 million bulletproof Ranger Rover SUV.
The Senator Samuel Anyanwu led committee also questions Senator Dino Melaye over the allegation that he did not graduate from Ahmadu Bello University, (ABU) Zaria.
Saraki’s appearance before the Ethics Committee marked the first time since the return to democracy in 1999, that a sitting Senate President will appear before Ethics committee to clear his name.
The Senate had on March 21st referred the two issues to its Ethics, Privileges and Public Petitions Committee for investigation.
This followed a point of order motion raised by Senator Mohammed Ali Ndume, (Borno South) that the issue is investigated to protect the integrity of the Senate.
Ndume relied on some publications to draw the attention of the Senate to the damning allegations against Saraki and Melaye.
Deputy Senate President, Senator Ike Ekweremadu, promptly referred the issues to the Ethics committee to investigate and report back within four weeks.
Apart from Anyanwu, other members of the committee at the investigative hearing included Senators Mao Ohuabunwa, (Abia North), Bala Ibn Na’Allah (Kebbi South) who excused himself from Saraki’s probe but participated in Melaye’s investigation, Tayo Alasoadura (Ondo Central), Peter Nwaoboshi (Delta North), Mathew Urhghide (Edo South) and Albert Akpan who said he is a friend to Melaye.
Before Saraki began his testimony, Chairman of the committee explained to him why he was invited by the committee.
Anyanwu specifically asked Saraki whether he (Saraki) is an importer, whether he imported any vehicle in the name of Abubakar Bukola Saraki if it is true that he imported SUV Range Rover that was clear with fake customs papers.
Saraki was also asked whether the SUV was cleared in his name or on his behalf and whether he asked anybody to clear the SUV on his behalf.
The Senate President began his testimony with a warning those fighting the National Assembly should desist from the act in the interest of democracy.
He insisted that democracy cannot thrive if institutions of government are deliberately weakened and ridiculed.
Saraki said, “I use this opportunity to commend the good work that you are doing and your effort and contribution to building the institution of the Senate that we all have sworn to defend and we are all here to do that.
“Part of my being here in person is all part of my belief that what you are doing here is to strengthen our institution.
“I said I want to come here personally, subject myself to this process because I think we must continue to build this institution and this is part of the process of building this institution.
“Most of the questions come to a basic issue.
“I am not an importer and at no point did I import an SUV Range Rover. As you know this is a vehicle that is not a “personal vehicle. It is a vehicle which was processed through the National Assembly.
“I don’t know anything about the importation; I did not appoint any clearing agent or anything like that.
“Most of the vehicles that are here you only know when it is delivered to you. None of this did I import or getting any agent or going to the port.
“This is not true, those that said it know it is not true, Customs knows it is not true because we all know that all treated vehicles have end user certificate and it states clearly who the importer is and these documents are available and there is no document anywhere that shows my name.
“So I want to state categorically that this is not true and it is important that I come here and clear my name and put this matter to rest.
“We all raised the issue of the policy that is anti-people in the interest of Nigerians. This policy that really had no value at all and that was why this motion came up and we debated it in the interest of Nigerians, but unfortunately those who want to fight back went and thought there was something to blackmail us with.
“But I believe that the issue at hand regarding this issue as I said categorically I am not an importer and I know the documents you have will show clearly that it has nothing to do with me.
“I believe that this process is good for us. It will further strengthen our institution. It is a great day for our democracy for me to come before you as the president of the Senate.
“We must protect this institution. As members, we will come and go but we must protect this institution.
“To ridicule an institution of this magnitude is not something we should take lightly and that is why I have taken the time to be here.
“Today it is me but tomorrow it will be another person. I think it is part of the sacrifice we are making in the work that we are doing that we have these kinds of cases that did not hold water.
“We must protect this institution because this is the only thing we can leave. The difference between military rule and democracy is the parliament. For as long as the parliament is weak, our democracy can never be strong.
“That is why I told myself that I must come here no matter how ridiculous I felt it was because the documents are clear. There is nowhere it said I imported it, it is not my private vehicle.”
On the importer of the car, Tokunbo Akindle, Chairman of the Committee Anyanwu told him that the allegation was that he imported an SUV and did not pay the import duties and that was the reason the Senate is having an issue with the Nigerian Customs.
Tokunbo Akindele responded: In 2015 on behalf of the firm that I work for, Oando PLC, we imported a Range Rover Bullet Proof SUV vehicle.
“We imported it as the company that needed to use it for the various operations that we have around the country.
“The car took longer than was expected and by the time it reached Nigeria in 2015, September, we decided that we will no longer be using the car, so we effectively packed it.
“Initially because we are not going to use it for any operations whatsoever because we already met the requirements needed.
“The process of acquiring the car we mandated a company offshore, to buy the car, armour the car, ship the car, clear the car with Customs and just deliver the car to us as a full-fledged service.
“We received the car in September 2015 assuming that all of these things are done, all payments were made for the acquisition, the armouring, the shipping as well as the clearing of which we have necessary evidence.
“The car was not imported for the Senate President, Sen. Bukola Saraki.
“In the process of clearing the car, we did not receive any documentation from the National Assembly.
“We were not a part of clearing the car, we were the customer, we were expected to receive the car for our own use.
“The vehicle was not to be used by Sen. Bukola Saraki, it was not imported or acquired for his use at the time the vehicle came into the country.
“The National Assembly took receipt of the car through a consignment from us, through Lanre Shittu Motors in December 2015.
“The car had been in the country for two months and had been sitting with no use and it was at that point that we released it to Lanre Shittu on consignment who sold it to the National Assembly.
“At no point did we submit any fake document for the clearing of the car. We followed all due process in terms of payment to the company which handled the entire process for us.”
Also speaking, the car dealer, Olarenwaju Shittu, told the committee that they facilitated the sale of the car to the National Assembly.
He said that there was never a time they sold the car to Saraki.
“It was when the car was intercepted sometime in 2017 that it was brought to my knowledge and we contacted Oando who gave us the papers that they said was fake,” Shittu said.